Discussions about the intercession of the saints often centers around the biblical evidence. But seldom does the conversation make it to the evidence from early Christian sources.
So, let’s look at some of that evidence here.
The earliest reference outside the New Testament that speaks of heavenly beings interceding for Christians on earth is the Shepherd of Hermas, also known as The Shepherd, which dates to around A.D. 80. Several influential early Christians—Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian—viewed The Shepherd as authoritative (well before the final canon of Scripture was declared at the Council of Rome in 382).
It records five visions given to one named Hermas, a former slave. In the fifth vision, an angelic messenger appears to Hermas in the guise of a shepherd. The shepherd says to Hermas,
But those who are weak and slothful in prayer hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask him. But you, [Hermas,] having been strengthened by the holy angel [you saw], and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do you not ask understanding of the Lord, and receive it from him?” (The Shepherd 3:5:4).
If early Christians believed angels could intercede for Christians on earth, then it’s not that far of a stretch to think they believed the souls in heaven intercede as well.
St. Clement of Alexandria confirms this line of reasoning at the beginning of the second century:
In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him (Miscellanies 7:12).
The implication is that just as the Christian is never out of the holy keeping of the angels, so too the Christian is never out of the keeping of the choir of the saints who stand with him as he prays. For Clement, where there’s angelic intercession there’s also the intercession of the saints. And such intercessory prayer is conjoined with the prayers of the Christians on earth.
Our next early Christian witness to the intercession of the saints is Origen. Although he’s not considered an early Church Father, he is a witness to early Christian belief. In his work Prayer, which dates to about A.D. 233, he writes,
But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep (11).
That Origen speaks of the “saints” as having “already fallen asleep” tells us that he’s thinking of the saints in heaven and not Christians on earth. And like Clement, he combines the intercessory prayer of the angels and the saints. For Origen, they go hand in hand.
Our next witness, and perhaps the strongest so far, is St. Cyprian of Carthage. In his Letters, which dates to around A.D. 252, he writes,
Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if any one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go from here first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brothers and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy (56:5).
Clearly, St. Cyprian believed the saints in heaven intercede for Christians on earth.
We also have evidence from early Christian epigraphical remains. Indeed, along with the idea that the saints intercede for us, we find the added requests made for their intercession. Consider, for example, an inscription concerning one named Sozon:
Blessed Sozon gave back [his spirit] aged nine years; may the true Christ [receive] your spirit in peace, and pray for us (Christian Inscriptions, no. 25, c. A.D. 250).
Another inscription speaks of someone named Gentianus, “a believer, in peace, who lived twenty-one years, eight months, and sixteen days, and in your prayers ask for us, because we know that you are in Christ” (Christian Inscriptions, no. 29, c. A.D. 250).
At the beginning of the fourth century (A.D. 300), we have evidence that Christians made requests from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Consider Methodius of Philippi, for example:
[W]e pray you, the most excellent among women, who boastest in the confidence of your maternal honors that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away (Oration on Simeon and Anna 14).
The request that Mary “remember” them is not merely a request for mental remembrance, but a request for intercessory prayer.
In St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, we discover that the intercession of the saints was invoked in the liturgy. Speaking of the Eucharistic Prayer, Cyril writes,
We commemorate those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that in their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition (23:9, c. A.D. 350).
Ephraim the Syrian, in his Commentary on Mark (A.D. 370), makes several requests of the martyrs in heaven, whom he calls “saints”:
You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him.
In Gregory of Nazianzen’s Orations (A.D. 374), we find the principle that the saints’ intercession in heaven is more effective than it was here on earth. Speaking of his father’s intercession, he writes,
Yes, I am well assured that [his] intercession is of more avail now than was his instruction in former days, since he is closer to God, now that he has shaken off his bodily fetters, and freed his mind from the clay that obscured it, and holds conversation naked with the nakedness of the prime and purest mind (18:4).
The last early Christian source that we’ll reference here is St. John Chrysostom. In his Homilies on Second Corinthians (A.D. 392), he writes,
For he who wears the purple himself goes to embrace those tombs, and, laying aside his pride, stands begging the saints to be his advocates with God, and he that wears the crown implores the tentmaker and the fisherman, though dead, to be his patrons (26:2:5).
To beg the saints to advocate with God on our behalf is to request their intercessory prayer.
In light of this evidence, we can conclude that the saints intercede for us and our invoking their prayers is not something that the Church made up somewhere down the line in its history. Rather, it’s something that was part of historic Christianity.